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India’s Age of ‘Non-Reason’: How Urdu Poetry Spoke About Hate and ‘Stupidity'

Stupidity masquerading as power is by no means a new phenomenon.

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Stupid people can be more dangerous than evil ones. So argued Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor who lived through the worst excesses of Nazi Germany and was deeply troubled to see ordinary Germans turn against the Jews who had lived in their midst for centuries, throwing stones at their homes and businesses, harassing and humiliating them and eventually becoming silent and unprotesting witnesses to the escalating hate pogroms against them. A founding member of the Confessing Church that resisted the Nazi government-sponsored efforts to unify all Protestant churches into a single pro-Nazi German Evangelical Church, Bonhoeffer's vocal opposition to fascism eventually cost him his life; he was arrested in 1943 and executed in the Flossenbürg concentration camp in April 1945.

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The Curse of Stupidity: Defencelessness

Being unaffected by reason, Bonhoeffer argued that stupid people can be neither fought against nor argued with. In his letters from prison, he wrote, “One may protest against evil; it can be exposed and prevented by the use of force. Against stupidity we are defenceless. Neither protests nor the use of force accomplishes anything here. Reasons fall on deaf ears.” In the swirling tide of hate sweeping across India, in the flood of scurrilous, often entirely inaccurate WhatsApp messages, YouTube videos and social media posts, Bonhoeffer's words carry a warning and a chilling portent of a disaster waiting to unfold.

While the scale and spread of stupidity are amplified manifold in this age of information technology and easy access to social media, stupidity masquerading as power is by no means a new phenomenon. Going by Urdu poetry, which has all along been the mirror in which this column attempts to view the world, the poet has time and again spoken out against jihalat (ignorance compounded by boorishness), himaqat (stupidity) and nafrat (hate).

'A Stupid Man Is Unaware of His Foolishness'

Altaf Husain Hali, who formed a bridge between classical poets such as Ghalib and his predecessors and the modern poets of the 20th century, wrote:

Aalim ko hai ilm apni nadani ka

Jahil ko nahin jahl ki kuchh apne khabar

(The intelligent man is aware of his stupidity

But the stupid man is unaware of his foolishness)

Tufail Chaturvedi, a latter day poet, warns:

Nafraton kaa aks bhi padne na denaa zehan par

Ye andhera jaane kitnon ka ujaala kha gaya

(Don’t let even the reflection of hate fall on your mind

This darkness has gobbled up the light of so many)

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A Divided Society

With his tongue firmly in his cheek, Mohsin Bhopali asks:

Jahil ko agar jehl ka inaam diya jaaye

Iss hadisa-e-waqt ko kya naam diya jaaye

(If the ignorant are given a prize for their ignorance

What name would you give to this accident of Time)

Saghar Khayyami, too, resorts to humour to make a penetrating observation on the wedge that has divided society:

Nafraton kii jang mein dekho to kyaa kyaa kho gayaa

Sabziyaan Hindu huiin bakra Musalman ho gayaa

(See what all has happened in this battle of hatred

Vegetables have become Hindu and the goat Muslim)

But who is to blame for this escalating hatred? The poet is unequivocal in saying the blame lies with both warring groups:

Khud-bakhud nahiin haael nafraton kii diivaaren

Kuchh khataa tumhaari thhi kuchh khataa hamari hai

(These walls of hatred have not come up between us on their own

Some part of the fault was yours and some part is mine, too)

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The World We're Leaving for our Children

When the goblet of tyranny and hatred spills over, the poet has cautioned and counselled, as in this sher by Muzaffar Razmi:

Yer jabr bhi dekha hai tariḳh ki nazron ne

Lamhon ne ḳhata ki thi sadiyon ne saza pa.i

(The eyes of History have seen this violence

Centuries bore the brunt of the mistakes of moments)


And this sher by Basheer Badr:

Saat sanduuqon mein bhar kar dafn kar do nafratein

Aaj insaan ko mohabbat ki zaruurat hai bahut

(Shut hatred in seven boxes and bury it deep

Today mankind needs love more than ever before)


Bonhoeffer said, “The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world that it leaves to its children." And that is the question that troubles me the most: what kind of world are we leaving for our children? A better, or worse one, than what we inherited? A divided one or a united one? A monochromatic one, or a pluralistic colourful one?

For, as Sarshar Sailani said:

Chaman mein ikhtilat-e rang-o bu se baat banti hai

Hum hii hum hain to kya hum hain tum hii tum ho to kya tum ho

(It is the intermingling of colours and fragrances that make a garden

If there’s only us there can be no us, and there can be no you if there’s only you)

(Dr Rakhshanda Jalil is a writer, translator and literary historian. She writes on literature, culture and society. She runs Hindustani Awaaz, an organisation devoted to the popularisation of Urdu literature. She tweets at @RakhshandaJalil. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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